Riding in Saturn's orbit: Aura of a new sedan


Published: Thursday, January 11, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 10, 2007 at 1:30 p.m.
The midday highway traffic coming out of New York City was typical for a sunny afternoon: long streams of fast-moving cars punctuated by short breaks, which you could enter only if you were fast enough.
The Saturn Aura was in manual mode, purring like a sleek cat from its dual exhausts waiting for a tap from the finger-tip paddle shifts to spring into action. There was a gap approaching, though the driver of a large SUV - in typical New York fashion - was accelerating to close the distance and prevent any other cars from getting into traffic ahead of him.
I hit the accelerator and the Aura jumped forward into the gap, the purr turning into a rumbling growl as I quickly tapped the paddle shift sending the 252-horsepower, V6 engine up into fifth gear, hitting 70 mph in a matter of seconds and blending into the westward traffic.
Ed Welburn, General Motors' vice president and chief designer, said last year that revitalizing the Saturn line to add style, panache and performance to an iconoclastic stodgy line was a high priority for the 2007 line of wheels in Saturn's orbit. His first hit was the Saturn Sky, a stunningly gorgeous roadster competing with the venerated Mazda Miata.
His next target was the mid-sized sedan - an orbit generally dominated by Toyota, Nissan and Honda - and a fairly unforgiving niche to roll into.
This is the market for singles or families, who want comfort, reasonable performance, quality workmanship, elbow and leg room, and a host of amenities in an affordable bundle. And if it gets decent gas mileage, that would be helpful.
Welburn will not be embarrassed by the performance of his Saturn Aura, a stylish, comfortable, quiet, maneuverable, roomy sedan drinking around 20 miles per gallon and rolling off the lot for under $28,000.
Outside, the Aura sports the new Saturn look, beginning with a grill featuring a logo resembling a pilot's wings. That's not surprising since Welburn has drawn a lot of inspiration from aircraft styling cues. The Aura is equally aerodynamic, with no buffeting or deafening sound of wind roaring by even when the speedometer is well into triple digits.
Inside, the Aura has a color coordinated décor with the pleated leather seat color matching the leather padding on the doors and the plastic trim resembling burnished wood. The effect can be simply comfortable if, for example, the seats are basic black, or eye-catching if one chooses bolder hues.
The seats in the Aura are soft, padded, and comfortable enough to ride in all day and night without feeling as if you are being punished for major sins. The rear seats fold down in a 60/40 split to enlarge an already ample trunk, which comes with a rope mesh to keep items from sliding around.
There is enough leg, head and elbow room in the back for a pair of average NFL linebackers, even with a child seat in the middle.
The dashboard screen, however, uses a basic black with a backlit yellow lettering resembling the computer screens from the old DOS era. In contrast, the Pontiac G6 uses bright red on its screen - which is glaring or arresting, depending on your tastes - while Toyota's segment-leading Camry uses a soft turquoise to illuminate the control panel, which is a noticeable, trademark break from the usually monotone dash.
Aesthetics aside, the information and entertainment systems are easy to use. It has an AM/FM stereo and an in-dash, six-disc CD and MP3 player that you can either control from the front by using fingertip controls on the leather steering wheel, or from the rear using a set of controls on the back of the center console.
If the rear passengers are in control of the music, there are wireless headphones they can use so their choice of noise will not interfere with the driver.
The Aura also features GM's OnStar communication system, which can serve as a phone in areas where cell phone service is unavailable, or provide a live concierge who can provide directions, connect you to emergency services, or make reservations at a restaurant or hotel.
The sound system has eight speakers, with enough volume and bass to let the Aura host the DJ at your next block party.
The Saturn avoids the usual, one-size-fits-all design by having both adjustable and telescoping steering wheel and floor pedals. Welburn was thoughtful enough to design the center console to hold cell phones as well as two cups or water bottles.
In addition, there is a split-level storage bin under the center arm rest, with a shallow upper level for small items such as electronic toll passes, and a deep lower level that holds the ear phones and CDs.
But it's easy to forget about the folks in the back. The Aura is a car that beckons you to get on the road, envelop yourself in the sounds of your choosing, and just go and enjoy the journey.
Roger Witherspoon writes a syndicated automotive column from New Jersey. He may be reached at Roger6T6@aol.com.

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